22 August 2010

Southern Scenic - Opening up Central Otago and Fiordland

From the 4th of December 1946 and over the 1946/47 summer a Gore resident, C. W. (Bill) Hewett, started offering scenic flights from Queenstown over the Central Otago lakes and over Fiordland with his Percival Proctor I, ZK-AJY.  These were advertised as Southern Scenic Air Trips. Flights were also offered from Alexandra.

Otago Daily Times, 30 November 1946

Bill Hewett's operation was very successful and he received offers of more work than he was able to undertake by himself and so he went into partnership with F. J. (Popeye) Lucas and Barry Topliss, a licensed engineer, to establish a charter company at Queenstown. 

Southern Scenic Airtrips, F J Lucas with Auster aircraft at Weheka (Fox Glacier), South Westland. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-13738-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23104809

Barry Topliss, engineer, and Mr Bill Hewitt (right), working on the engine in front of a Southern Scenic Airtrips Ltd Auster at Queenstown. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-14597-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22655573

The company started operations with an Auster J/1 Autocrat, ZK-APO, contributed by Lucas, and Bill Hewett's Percival Proctor I. The first official flight was made in the Auster on the 8th of September 1947, flying whitebait from South Westland to Queenstown. The next day, the 9th of  September 1947, the company, Southern Scenic Air Trips Ltd, was formed. And the licence finally caught up with a hearing of the Transport Licensing Authority at Queenstown on the 15th of September 1947 hearing and granting Southern Scenic Air Trips' application for a passenger service licence 

The whitebait season offered a lot of opportunity for the new company but the season also presented a couple of problems.  On the 30th of September 1947 Bill Hewett flew the Auster ZK-APO to Jackson’s Bay in South Westland to uplift a load of whitebait. Departing about 7am the plane was over the Lammerlaw Range, about 45 miles from Dunedin, at about  10.00am when a downdraught over the range was so strong that Mr Hewitt decided he would be unable to clear the peaks, and he determined upon the hazardous course of attempting a landing in a valley of the barren and rocky mountains. The place he chose to land on offered no more than 10 feet of clearance on either side of the wings at the spot where the aircraft landed, and the nose of the plane was about 10 feet from the cliffs. Realising that it would be impossible to continue the flight, Mr Hewitt, who has a good knowledge of the country, decided to walk to 12 miles to Rocklands Station. The aircraft was eventually sledged out to the Rocklands station and then trucked to the railhead at Outram from where it was railed to Christchurch for overhaul.

More misfortune was to follow the following month. On the 29th of October 1947 the company's Proctor ZK-AJY, again piloted by Bill Hewett flew to Big Bay to uplift a load of whitebait. The Otago Daily Times reported that the plane had struck a soft patch of sand when it was preparing to take-off on its return journey, and had been partly upended, the propeller being bent. Otherwise little damage was done. To add to the misfortune, however, the spring tide rose quickly, and the plane was partly immersed. The pilot, Mr C. W. Hewitt, clung grimly to the machine and at times stood chest deep in the sea to prevent the plane from being carried away in the high-running surf. Three hours passed before the plane could he finally secured by Mr Hewitt and the whitebait fishermen who came to his aid. Some slight damage to the plane's undercarriage and one wing was caused by the surf. The plane was finally flown out on the 15th of November. While these first flights had had their challenges they were also quite successful with 4,500lb of whitebait flown from Big Bay to Dunedin.

Southern Scenic quickly gained a reputation for being a versatile operator. On the 28th of January 1948 the Alexandra Herald And Central Otago Gazette reported that, A consignment of 20 cases of tomatoes grown by Mr Val Waldron, left Alexandra yesterday by a Southern Scenic Air Trips plane for Balclutha. It is understood that this is the first instance of locally grown fruit being flown to market. the company also offered seed sowing, stock spotting and supply dropping.

Otago Daily Times, 28 August 1948

The Otago Daily Times of the 20th of August carried a report on Southern Scenic's first seed sowing operation... Over 500lb of grass seed, about one third of the entire amount to be handled, was sown from the air near Lake Hayes yesterday. The area selected was on the steep faces of the hills bordering Lake Hayes, and the job is being done with a small Auster monoplane operated by Southern Scenic Airtrips Company. This is the first time an assignment of this sort has been carried out by the company and it involved rigging a small hopper in the cabin of the plane through which the seed could be dropped. The seed falls away from the aircraft in a long stream and then fans out to cover a wide area by the time it reaches the ground. Practice runs were made on Wednesday over the Frankton airfield in order to get some idea of the area which could be covered in each dropping run. Although this was one pf the first such seed sowing flights made in this province, the practice has been used extensively overseas and has been tried with success in the north. Working on the same principle, the spraying and dusting pf crops from the air have also been carried out. Air sowing on broken and hilly country cuts the time for the operation to a fraction of that required by more conventional means. Auster aircraft, with their manoeuvrability and low stalling speed, are particularly adaptable for such work.

From an early stage the company wanted to operate regular air services. From mid-1948  through to mid-1950 Southern Scenic Air Services sought approval to operate an air service between Dunedin and Central Otago. On the 5th of August 1948 one of Southern Scenic's directors expressed his frustration to the Otago Daily Times... “We could have two six-passenger aircraft in operation between Queenstown and Dunedin within a month if the Government would grant us a licence,” a director of Southern Scenic Air Trips told the Daily Times by telephone from Queenstown last night. He was making his statement after hearing the broadcast from Parliament of the debate on the Civil Aviation Bill. “The two aircraft are twin-engined machines and are completely airworthy,” the company official stated. “One could be used on the run while the other was being serviced. In this way we could operate an efficient service linking Queenstown and Dunedin and calling at such places as Cromwell, Alexandra, Roxburgh or Middlemarch. “The Government is not in a position to operate such a service,” he added. “The. Minister of Civil Aviation, Mr Jones, admitted this only recently. All we require is the licence to give the people of Otago a badly needed air service.” The director of the company added that his firm could not even obtain a licence to operate an ordinary air taxi service, which was required in Central Otago to-day. Its activities were confined to scenic trips and the whitebait run between Big Bay and Dunedin. “Even if we could not get the twin-engined machines, we have two four-seater, single-engined planes that could provide a satisfactory service,” he stated. “These Percival Proctors could run between Queenstown and Dunedin in the same way as National Airways run their single-engined Fox Moths between Hokitika and Jackson’s Bay. These Fox Moths make two trips weekly over country far rougher than anything encountered on Central Otago routes. This service is being extended to Westport. If the Government can operate 'such a service with single-engined machines, why cannot our company be given a licence?” he asked.

At this stage, following the establishment of NZ National Airways Corporation as the national carrier, the licensing of private operators to operate scheduled services was up in the air, thereby  grounding the ambitions of companies like Southern Scenic. In his book, Popeye Lucas Queenstown, Popeye Lucas wrote “We were rather shattered when the Air Secretary wrote in reply to one of our innumerable applications advising that National Airways had appointed aero clubs to operate air charter, air taxi, and air ambulance services, and that these aero clubs would in most cases be the exclusive sub-contractors to the Corporation. On the face of this there was no hope for the private operator at all.”

The 1948 whitebait season proved to both a boon and costly for Southern Scenic. Big Bay is about 95km south of Jackson's Bay 40km north of Milford Sound and has no road access. A radio-telephone was installed at  which helped communications with Southern Scenic. An Otago Daily Times article gave an insight into the air freighting of whitebait... The nets used by the fishermen are the usual West Coast box type, consisting of a framework, covered with metal gauze, of about nine cubic feet capacity. The nets are slid into a frame placed in the River. They are constantly attended, and are emptied according to the flow of whitebait. Six or seven live boxes are also floated in the river to hold the fish after being caught. The fish are kept alive for periods of up to two weeks in these boxes. When the fishermen are advised that an aircraft is due, the whitebait is packed into four-gallon tins for dispatch. The tins are ferried down to the beach by boat to await the arrival of the aircraft. “Sometimes it is not always possible to get out all the whitebait that is caught, and in these circumstances it is released so that it can breed for the next season.” ... For a period last season the two fishermen had an exceptionally busy time, and after eight days of netting, piloted by Mr C. W. Hewitt, flew out 7000lb of whitebait. Both the fishermen and Mr Hewitt worked from dawn to dusk, the fishermen often working late into the night by torchlight. “This was exceptional because of the wet season, and the large amount of whitebait which would have been spread over a longer period, came in a rush when the floods subsided” continued Mr Midgley. This quantity constituted more than half the season’s catch. Unfortunately, on the 28th of October 1948, the Proctor, ZK-AJY, had another incident at Big Bay. The aircraft was on a flight from Queenstown to Big Bay to take in supplies to the whitebaiters and to bring back a load of  whitebait. While landing on the beach it struck some half buried driftwood and nosed over. An initial report indicated that the undercarriage might have been slightly damaged, but as it transpired the aircraft had to be written off.

In February 1949 the Otago Daily Times reported on Southern Scenic's supply dropping activities... In conjunction with the Internal Affairs Department, Southern Scenic Airtrips, Ltd., is dropping supplies to deer, goat, and chamois cullers in all parts of the South Island. This service, which was previously carried out by the Public Works Department, is allowing cullers to reach areas which would otherwise be inaccessible and unprofitable. The small aeroplane which drops the supplies can carry 350lb on each trip. The trips average about 50 minutes’ flying time. A small aeroplane is used as it is more manoeuvrable and is able to pass through confined valleys. Supplies can also be dropped with much greater accuracy. The company recently supplied the scientific expedition in the Sounds’ district on the West Coast.

Also in early 1949 a joint American and New Zealand expedition headed into Fiordland to do research on Wapiti deer which had been introduced into New Zealand in the middle of the 19th century. Southern Scenic was employed to do supply drops for the expedition as reported in the Otago Daily Times of the 4th of March 1949... A new method of dropping supplies to the Fiordland expedition in the Caswell Sound area will be inaugurated today when Southern Scenic Air Trips, of Queenstown, will drop supplies by parachute to the party at the advance camp in the Upper Stillwater River. Mr F. J. Lucas, a director of the company, told the Daily Times last night that he was leaving Queenstown at six o’clock this morning for the Manapouri landing field. There he would pick up provisions for the Fiordland party. On each trip he would take 3cwt of supplies and he hoped to make seven trips during the day The provisions would be attached to parachutes and dropped over the camp. This method of supplying the advance camps would probably continue in the coming weeks. Supply dropping throughout the South Island became an important part of the business and included, in 1949, droppingt supplies to seven parties of cullers, who were engaged in the campaign undertaken by the Wildlife branch of the Department of Internal Affairs to reduce the numbers of wallabies in the Hunter Hills near Waimate. *** 

In September 1948 Popeye Lucas joined the war against rabbits in the MacKenzie country and Central Otago. Initial experiments of spreading poisoned pellets on a station in the Omarama district were successful and the further trials were carried out in August 1949 in the Kurow district. The Otago Daily times reported that To lay a ton of the poison in a day the services of 110 men would be required at a cost, in wages, of about £150. The cost of laying a similar amount by air is £45. The spreading of the poison by air has not been perfected, but a high degree of accuracy has been attained. The plane travels at from 60 to 70 miles an hour at an altitude of 200 feet, spreading 10lb of pollard to the mile. The poison is poured through a funnel and the slipstream gives it a reasonably even spread. The pollard pellets cannot be seen leaving the plane and do not disintegrate on striking the ground. If this method of spreading proves as successful as is hoped, it will be one of the quickest and, cheapest ways of dealing with the pest in the high country areas. 

The 1949 whitebait season saw Southern Scenic also serving whitebaiters at Martin's Bay. An airstrip was cleared for the company's aircraft. When this was completed, One of the brothers tramped 12 miles over rough country to Big Bay, travelling along the beach where possible, but, despite this, the journey took six hours He advised Southern Scenic Airtrips, Ltd., by the company’s radio at Big Bay that a landing strip at Martin's Bay was ready for use. A few hours later an Auster Autocrat picked him up and flew him over to Martin’s Bay, but it was not until the aircraft was over the area that it was realised that a landing could not be made, on account of high bush at both approaches to the 200 ft runway. The pilot, Mr F. Lucas, shut off the engine of the plane, glided low over the ground and shouted out instructions for improvements which were commenced immediately—by expert hands, for the Mitchell brothers are among the leading competitors in sawing and wood-chopping on the Coast. A few days later the trees had been lowered and the stumps cleared and the plane was able to land. In one or two trips from Queenstown all the necessary whitebaiting equipment for the brothers was flown in and in addition the plane carried extra bush-felling equipment including a sawbench and motor so that timber could be made available for the erection of headquarters. As time allowed, further improvements were carried out on the airstrip which now has been extended to 300 yards, although the light Auster aircraft can land and pull up in 60. On one recent trip Mr. T. Cheetham was piloting the plane and as he came in to land, three' wild horses dashed out of the bush at the end of the runway and galloped towards him. He opened the throttle and took off again but only just in time to clear the horses and dodge the trees. At present it is possible only to land towards the bush and take off away from it, but this state of affairs will be rectified as working time allows. Only once previously has an aircraft landed at Martin’s Bay. This was in 1936 when Mr T. Bradshaw, of Invercargill, touched down on a sandspit which is now practically non-existent. Since early in September the. plane of Southern Scenic Airtrips has been making two or three trips a week transporting cargoes of up to 1200lb of whitebait from Big Bay for the Dunedin and other city markets. Meanwhile 43 loads of whitebait were taken out of Big Bay during the 1949 season.

In September 1949 it was reported that Popeye Lucas had used an Auster to bring a flock of Canadian geese within range of a hunting group near Wanaka. It was reported that the assistance given by the plane resulted in good bags being obtained.

In 1949 NAC finally announced that they would introduce an air service from Dune­din to Alexandra and they suggested that a private firm be allowed to operate a feeder service. In addition to this the Licensing Authority required the use of twin-engined aircraft. The Minister of Civil Aviation visited Central Otago where Queenstown interests pushed for the extension of the proposed NAC Dunedin-Alex­andra service to include Queenstown. On the meeting with the Minister Popeye Lucas wrote, “At this, for us, historic meeting, progress was made when the Minister, while reiterating the Government policy on commercial aviation, said that there "might" be one or two exceptions to their policy. One of these "could be Southern Scenic Air Services, as they were servicing the needs of a vast back-country area." He said "I have the greatest admiration for Mr Lucas and his partners in the splendid pioneering work already achieved”; and, “if the local company applied for a charter and taxi licence, it would be granted.”

NZNAC did some survey flights from Taieri to Alexandra, and on the 12th of December 1949 carried their first passengers to Central Otago, but later announced that the service would be restricted to air charter. This did not meet with public approval and subsequently Southern Scenic Air Services were given the licence.

Southern Scenic’s Queenstown-Dunedin service began on 17th of July 1950, the first flight being flown by John Kilian. Initially the service operated twice weekly, calling at Cromwell at Alexandra as required and using Taieri airfield as the Dunedin terminus. Over the years the service was extended to a daily service with the timetable arranged to connect with the first NAC northbound flight, and to return to Queenstown after the last southbound one. The company later sought to extend the service northwards from Dunedin to Oamaru, Timaru, Ashburton and Christchurch.

Percival P44 Proctor 5 ZK-AQK at Taieri. Photographer unknown
First Day cover for the Queenstown-Dunedin service

Approval, however, was only given to operate between Taieri and Oamaru. The company began operating this service on the 18th of December 1952. Lack of patronage later led to end the Oamaru service on the 30th of June 1953. 

For a fuller history on the Oamaru service see :


First Day Cover for the extended service from Taieri to Oamaru

In the early years the air service was operated by Austers and Proctors but from December 1953 Avro Anson XII, ZK-AXY, was introduced to the run. In 1956 the Anson was replaced by De Havilland DH89 Dominies which were much cheaper to run than the Anson.

Avro Anson XII, ZK-AXY, at Queenstown
De Havilland DH89B Dominie, ZK-AKT, at Taieri on the 29th of August 1960. Photographer unknown

In August 1951 the company landed an Auster on a beach at Milford Sound paving the way for future flights to this scenic gem. Eventually an airstrip was built enabling regular flights from Queenstown with Austers, Proctors and later Cessnas. In 1956 the airstrip was upgraded to handle Dominies, with the Queenstown to Milford Sound flights becoming the heart of the company’s tourist flying.

In the mid-1950s Southern Scenic established a subsidiary company, West Coast Airways Ltd, to take over and operate the NAC South Westland service from Hokitika. West Coast Airways commenced operations on the 19th of November 1956 serving Haast, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef and with a feeder service between Hokitika and Greymouth. The company hoped to extend this service from Haast to Milford Sound to connect with their own flights from Milford to Queenstown and on through to Dunedin. While there may have been great tourist potential with this connection the West Coast Airways service to Milford Sound, which operated weekly, was never popular. 

Classic Southern Scenic Air Services' colours... de Havilland DH89B Dominie ZK-AKT at Queenstown (above) and at Milford Sound, ca 1968 (below)

Southern Scenic Air Services' Cessna 180 ZK-CBL at Queenstown.

During the summer of 1957-58 the company trialled a six-day a week air service between Queenstown and Invercargill. The service commenced on the 17th of December 1957 with the first flight being piloted by Russell Troon. The Invercargill service, however, did not generate much traffic and ended at the end of the summer.

First Day Cover for the Queenstown Invercargill service

Meanwhile, the Queenstown-Dunedin service continued to be a loss maker. However, as Popeye Lucas wrote, it produced intangible benefits: it rounded off our activities, gave us control of our area provided a vital service to the community, and put us on the map for incoming visitors. Some of the losses for the year could fairly have been considered advertising because of the goodwill generated and the indirect advertising we received, of which we were much in need, having no advertising formally budgeted in our annual estimates. I felt the good it did outweighed the loss. Having struggled so hard to get it going and having persevered when the loadings were low, I felt it was worthwhile hanging on now, as the tourist influx was increasing annually and in a few more years there would be a far greater volume of traffic. If it did nothing else it kept the aircraft fully utilised, which was most important. In April 1962, after Popeye had left the company, the Queenstown-Dunedin service was cut. By then Alexandra was being serviced by SPANZ which will be the next instalment.

In May 1965 Southern Scenic Air Services Limited merged with Tourist Air Travel Limited which was subsequently bought by the Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Company which became more commonly known as Mount Cook Airlines. The Queenstown flightseeing operation was sold and became known as Milford Sound Flightseeing.  Around 2002, a joint venture between The Helicopter Line and Real Journeys Limited was formed, the most recent name change was to, when Real Journeys bought 100% ownership, and the Real Journeys brand was added to the fleet.

Bruce Gavin has compiled this list of Southern Scenic's people and planes...

PEOPLE included:

F.J. (Popeye) Lucas (co-founder, managing director and pilot)
W. (Bill) Hewett (co-founder, director and pilot)
Barry Topliss (director and chief engineer)
Trevor Cheetham (pilot)
John Kilian (director and pilot)
Tex Smith (pilot)
Russell Troon (pilot)
Bruce Irving (pilot)
Don Nairn (pilot)
Alan Nicholas (pilot)
Hank De Heus (pilot)
Rex Dovey (pilot)
Brian Waugh (pilot)
Paddy Moxham (pilot)
Dave Cowan (pilot)
Clive Coates (pilot)
Geoff Houston (pilot)
Peter Blewitt (pilot)
Malcolm Douglas (pilot)
Sam Sands? (pilot with SSA or TAT?)
Ted Crawford? (pilot with SSA or TAT?)
Alister Gibbons? (pilot with SSA or TAT?)
Eric Ewington (chief engineer)
David Bell (aircraft engineer)
Alec Johnston  (aircraft engineer)
Colin Reid  (aircraft engineer)
Bill Davies  (aircraft engineer)
John Muir  (aircraft engineer)
Brad Lynton  (aircraft engineer)
D.W. (Bill) Davies (general manager)
Lorie Lucas (business manager)
Tom Donaldson (business manager)
Steve Sutton (joined the staff to help develop the Milford Sound airstrip)

AIRCRAFT included:

ZK-AHS    De Havilland DH.89A Dragon Rapide (c/n 6423)
ZK-AJY     Percival P.28 Proctor I  (c/n H.1)
ZK-AKS    De Havilland DH.89B Dominie (c/n 6647)
ZK-AKT     De Havilland DH.89B Dominie (c/n 6673)
ZK-ALW    Auster J/1 Autocrat (c/n 2132)
                   Whites Air Directory, 1947, records this aircraft as registered to
                   Southern Lakes Scenic Trips Ltd, Queenstown
ZK-APG    Percival P.34 Proctor III (c/n H.524)
ZK-APO    Auster J/1 Autocrat (c/n 2212)
ZK-AQH    de Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moth (c/n 82970)
ZK-AQK    Percival P.44 Proctor V (c/n Ae.79)
ZK-AQL     Auster J/1 Autocrat (c/n.2245)
ZK-ASJ     Chrislea CH.3 Super Ace Series 2 (c/n 129)
ZK-ASO    De Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moth (c/n 83533)
ZK-AUO    Auster J/1 Autocrat (c/n 1955) hired
ZK-AWS   Auster J/1B Aiglet (c/n 2667 and 386W)
ZK-AWY   Auster J/1B Aiglet (c/n 2668)
ZK-AXY    Avro 652A Anson XII (c/n PH599)
ZK-AYJ     Avro Anson I (c/n NZ418)
                   never operated- used as spares
ZK-AZE     Auster J/1B Aiglet (c/n 2748) hired
ZK-BAU    De Havilland DH.89B Dominie (c/n 6654)
ZK-BCL     Avro 652A Anson I (c/n INST152)
                   used briefly on freight operations
ZK-BCP    De Havilland DH.89B Dominie (c/n 6648)
ZK-BDE    Cessna 180 (c/n 180-30459)
ZK-BFT     Cessna 180 (c/n 180-30961)
ZK-BGO    Cessna 180 (c/n 180-31183)
ZK-BGT     Auster J/5 (c/n 2803)
ZK-BJW    Cessna 180 (c/n 180-31404)
ZK-BJY     Cessna 180 (c/n 180-31421)
ZK-BKS    Piper PA.18A Super Cub (c/n 18-5052)
ZK-BLB     Piper PA.22 Tri-Pacer  (c/n 22-3379) leased
ZK-BUQ    Cessna 180A (c/n 180-32995)         
ZK-CBL     Cessna 180 (c/n RA/3/62)
ZK-CCX    Cessna 185 (c/n 185-0115)

This post has focused on the regular air services operated by Southern Scenic. For a fuller history of the company see :
F J Lucas, Popeye Lucas Queenstown
R Waugh et al, Taking Off - Pioneering Small Airlines of New Zealand 1945-1970

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